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Two cientists looking at a bunson burner.

Ancel Keys, right, during his younger days.

Ancel Keys turns 100

Ancel Keys turns 100

by Gayla Marty

From Brief,, February 25, 2004

Ancel Keys turned 100 on January 26. For a health and nutrition researcher who adopted a Mediterranean diet nearly 50 years ago, it's a suitable milestone.

The University of Minnesota professor emeritus of public health was a pathbreaker in the fields of cardiology and epidemiology.

"He is simply a public health giant," says Mark Becker, assistant vice president and dean of the U's School of Public Health. "Few, if any, figures in the 20th century can match his contributions to the biology and epidemiology of coronary heart disease."

In a career that spanned more than 70 years, most of them at the University of Minnesota, Keys led the development of a field that combined physiology, nutrition, epidemiology, and prevention. In many ways, his career is like a snapshot of health research in the past century.

> The Biology of Human Starvation, published in 1950, described research carried out in 1944-45 with the goal of developing effective relief efforts for people starving in war-torn regions. The 36 participants were conscientious objectors who volunteered for the project. After being brought to a baseline weight, the participants ate a semi-starvation diet of only 1,600 calories per day and, later, a rehabilitation diet. Results are still being used to study risks for refugee populations.

> The Twin Cities Study of 283 businessmen began in 1947 and pioneered the study of heart disease. Keys had noticed an increase in the number of heart attacks, especially among white collar men. He identified the relationships among cholesterol, fat, and heart disease.

> The Seven Countries Study, which began in 1958, followed samples of men from 16 distinct populations in seven countries--Finland, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, and Yugoslavia. Keys and his colleagues showed that heart-attack rates correlated with cultural habits--diet and exercise, in particular.

His education began with a B.A. from the University of California. He earned an M.A. in zoology and a Ph.D. from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. He earned another Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1936. He did research in Copenhagen and at Harvard before coming to the University of Minnesota, where he met and married his wife, Margaret, and engaged in non-stop research.

K-rations, hunger relief, cholesterol, and cultural factors

Keys's Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene under Memorial Stadium's Gate 27 became a notable campus oddity. Keys himself became most famous for inventing the K-ration--a ready-to-eat meal carried by U.S. troops in World War II (originally dry biscuits, sausage, and chocolate).

His research includes several historic studies (see sidebar). Findings in the Twin Cities and Seven Countries Studies "would forever affect the way we approach epidemiology and prevention of heart disease," Becker says. Keys gained popular recognition for his work when he made the cover of Time magazine on January 13, 1961.

Walking the talk: the Mediterranean diet

Keys and his wife adopted the Mediterranean diet in the 1950s and wrote a cookbook to promote it. After retirement in 1972, they lived in Italy much of each year. Now in frail health, they have returned to Minnesota.

"We owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Keys for the gift he has given us," says dean Becker, "as professionals and students of public health--and as those who have benefited from his guidance on how to live a healthier, longer life." Portions of this article first appeared in a message from the dean, by Mark Becker, in School of Public Health News, February 2, 2004. Sources "A century of science," by Kermit Patterson, Pioneer Press, January 24, 2004. "Keys of nutrition," by David Brown, Washington Post, October 22, 2001. "Meet Monsieur Cholesterol," by William Hoffman, Update, winter 1979. "Ancel Keys," by Henry Blackburn, M.D., University of Minnesota

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